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If you're trying to place the 2015 Toyota Venza into a nice, neat category, you might want to give up and simply embrace its usefulness. It isn't a station wagon, and it's no SUV; yet it has higher seat height than a car and available all-wheel drive. Even more so than other crossover utes, it refuses to be defined so easily.
That's how we'd describe it in the most logical of worlds--but why add to that naming confusion? It's simply one of the more practical, carlike mid-size vehicles we can think of, a highly functional piece that takes the best attributes of those car types and blends them into something new and neat-looking. (Okay, maybe it's not so new, if you remember the AMC Eagle, but still.)
The five-seat Venza looks like the grown-up, grown-out hatchback it really is, one with the extra room and ride height it needs for occasional adventures and excursions. Refreshed lightly in 2013 but mostly identical to its 2009 origins, the Venza has a big, toothy grille that's the sole overstatement in its entire portfolio of lines and curves. With its somewhat lower profile and roofline, compared to other crossover utes, the Venza seems knitted together particularly well from Toyota's parts bin.
The cabin's perfectly functional, but trim and materials are more serviceable than sexy. There's a bit too much hard plastic in contact with driver and passenger knees than you might expect in a vehicle that can cost well over $30,000.
There are four-cylinder and V-6 Venzas, and both are offered with all-wheel drive (V-6s, in fact, come only with AWD). The 2.4-liter four-cylinder is rated at 182 horsepower, the V-6 at a strong 268 hp. Both are paired to a six-speed automatic. Four-cylinder models are perfectly adequate but uninspiring, while V-6 models have a stronger, smoother character that makes it feel more like the Lexus RX 350. Road noise is an issue on coarser surfaces, with the four-cylinder more than the six. Gas mileage isn't much different between the two powertrains, with four-cylinder Venzas at up to 20/26 mpg, and V-6s checking in at 19/26 mpg.
In drives of Venza models from previous model years, we've found these wagons to drive a bit more like a well-sorted minivan than a sportier wagon or an SUV. You sit higher up, but in terms of ride and handling, the Venza is more carlike than most other alternatives. With moderately soft suspension tuning and rather numb steering, it's by no means exciting to drive, but it's competent and never struggles to defeat the driver's intent.
Both engines get the same all-wheel drive system, configured for on-road tractability, and on V-6 models there's a standard Towing Prep Package good for pulling up to 3,500 pounds.
Unlike Toyota's three-row 4Runner, or even the big Highlander, the Venza makes absolutely no claim to the off-road trail. And while you can get third-row seating in both of those, the Venza only has two rows of (albeit very comfortable seating). It's more a Camry wagon, at a functional level. What that means is impressive space for five adults and a good amount of cargo space—as well as a near-ideal seating height that makes getting in and out especially easy.
Safety scores have been good, and the Venza now comes with standard Bluetooth and a rearview camera.
The Venza is offered in base LE, mid-range XLE, and top-lux Limited trims. Four-cylinders come only in LE and XLE trim, and V-6s only in Limited trim, with all-wheel drive. Venza XLE models get a memory power driver's seat, reverse-tilt outside mirrors, and navigation, as well as Entune multimedia features. At the top of the line, all Limited models have LED daytime running lights, premium 13-speaker JBL sound, and an upgraded navigation system.